GuardRFID Technology Comparison
Technology > Technology Comparison

Overall, a 433 MHz-based RTLS offers the best cost-performance ratio with thousands of proven installations around the world.

Wi-Fi-based RTLS can make sense for a small-scale deployment with a limited number of tags and tracking by area. It’s also suitable for “zonal” location.

BLE RTLS is ideal when location accuracy is not a major requirement and if your use case involves smartphones as part of your real-time location system functionality.

Not all real-time location systems are created equal

When it comes to different types of real-time location technologies and systems, we know how confusing it can be, especially with the growing trend to leverage existing Wi-Fi networks and utilize low-cost Bluetooth/BLE technology. And where does IoT fit in exactly? The challenge is - how do you determine what’s right for your organization? This page is our chance to educate you on the facts – vs. the “alternative facts” – when it comes to the different technology choices you have. Then you can decide what works best for you.

Important Considerations when Buying an RTLS System

First and foremost, it’s important to ask and analyze several important questions before deciding what underlying technology to go with for your RTLS implementation:

  1. What is the environment the RTLS will be installed in? This is one of the most critical deciding factors since the environment determines how the system must be installed and configured to meet your needs… if even possible. For example, is it a dense, crowded environment with many obstacles and moving bodies affecting communication frequencies? And how much competition is there for the particular frequency you’re looking to use which can result in data loss, system slowdown, and more.
  2. How secure does this system need to be? Here we’re referring to data and network security. For example, can an infant security system be temporarily brought down by external forces, allowing for an abduction?
  3. What will be tracked exactly, and for how long? When analyzing an RTLS solution or vendor, you need to understand the full range and characteristics of what will be tracked, plus the environmental conditions faced to ensure they offer tags to suit your every need. For example, do you require tags that fit small, thin items and/or do you need tags that can withstand harsh environments? Or what about tags with specific characteristics for infants or patients? Then beyond the tag selection, can these tags last as long as you need them to, whether months or years?
  4. How many people and/or assets will be tracked? This is important since the more tags you’re tracking, the more additional “noise” you’re creating on your network, whichever one you’ve decided to go with. Most important for implementations with a lot of tags is that this extra “noise” be kept to a minimum. This varies by RTLS technology.
  5. How accurately must these assets and/or people be tracked? Any real-time location system really is a balance of cost and location accuracy, so it’s important to know what level of accuracy will do the job for you. For example, is site-level enough or do you need floor-level, room-level, or even more precise locating? Any RTLS can be promoted as “affordable” or “cost effective”, but are you getting what you need from the system for that lower price point?
  6. What level of maintenance and support is appropriate and manageable? Every RTLS technology and range of tags has its own level of support (and cost) required to achieve and maintain maximum utilization of the system. It’s important you understand what this really entails each year, in order to factor this into the true cost of the system.
  7. What are the true costs of the installed system meeting your particular criteria? Now this can be tricky to determine per RTLS technology option, since beyond the initial cost for hardware and software covering the physical areas you require, you need to also ensure the system is properly fitted and configured to deliver the functionality and performance you’re after. Additionally, there are the ongoing costs over time such as the cost of new and replacement tags, system maintenance, etc.

RTLS Technology Overviews

Now that you have a better feel for exactly what you’re after, it will be easier to determine the best RTLS technology for your organization. Here are three main options and yes, we’ll admit we’re slightly biased in our perspectives. However, the following information is based on research and implementation results from various sources. We didn’t make any of this up.

Conventional Active RFID (433 MHz) RTLS

Like AllGuard, many of the Active RFID systems deployed in the last decade are based on the 433 MHz UHF band, which is recognized as being the most optimal frequency for this type of a system. Tags act as miniature radio transceivers which send beacon messages (i.e. “I am here”) every few seconds or minutes, depending on configuration. These beacons are received by multiple tag reader receivers located within the perimeter of coverage, and then the content of the message received is forwarded to a central AllGuard server – on premise or elsewhere. There the signals are used to locate a tag usually be means of a proprietary location algorithm, but location accuracy is determined by the number of tag reader receivers deployed within the system and the particular environment the system resides in.

A Few Surprising Facts to know about 433 MHz-based RTLS

  • These Active RFID tags can actually be smaller, less expensive, and last longer than alternatives, over five years in some cases.
  • Due to the low-power nature of 433 MHz and its longer wavelength, it is the best frequency for use in dense environments, including those with a lot of metal, and large structures.
  • Although 433 MHz is the most widely used Active RFID system frequency, it does not interfere with other systems in the same band or overload other networks.
  • A dedicated 433 MHz real-time location system is actually capable of supporting tens of thousands of tags without performance degradation.
  • Overall, a 433 MHz-based RTLS offers the best cost-performance ratio, with thousands of proven installations around the world. It was originally intended for remote applications, like location tracking, and had interoperability with other systems in mind from the start.

Wi-Fi (2.4 GHz) RTLS

With the prevalence of Wi-Fi networks, it was inevitable that vendors would come along providing tags that work with the IEEE 802.11x standard vs. dedicated RFID frequencies. Why not leverage existing infrastructure to implement RTLS functionality to save time, money, training, etc.? In this case, tags transmit a Wi-Fi signal to multiple access points throughout a building where receivers are able to locate the tag.

A Few Surprising Facts to know about Wi-Fi-based RTLS

  • If you deploy a Wi-Fi-based system, you can often use existing Wi-Fi infrastructure with firmware changes. Just be aware that your location tracking and security may suffer from existing network overload while also contributing to an already-busy network.
  • You may require many more Wi-Fi access points than originally planned – often four to six times more - in order to get the level of coverage and location accuracy you’re after.
  • Due to the high-power nature of Wi-Fi’s 2.4 GHz frequency, and its much shorter wavelength, Wi-Fi real-time location systems are much more prone to interference from obstacles and moving bodies making location accuracy difficult.
  • These tags are the most power-hungry, the largest in size, and don’t last as long as other tags, and so heavy on maintenance costs.
  • Although Wi-Fi may initially seem like the easier, more affordable choice, it is less accurate and ultimately more expensive than an RTLS system designed specifically for monitoring the location and status of equipment and people. Location abilities were an afterthought for this technology but it can make sense for a small-scale deployment with a limited number of tags and tracking by area. It’s also suitable for “zonal” location.

Bluetooth/BLE (2.4 GHz) RTLS

With the advent of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Active Bluetooth-based RTLS became a serious reality. In fact, some call it the new “powerhouse of RTLS”. In these implementations, small BLE tags send out a signal that can be picked up by other Bluetooth devices – like mobile phone or wearable devices - providing the distance between a tag and a particular reader.

A Few Surprising Facts to know about Wi-Fi-based RTLS

  • BLE-based systems are cheaper and are easier to integrate with everyday devices since nearly all phones and many mobile devices are already equipped with the technology.
  • BLE systems are more prone to interruption making location accuracy challenging while also jeopardizing system safety and security.
  • Although BLE implementations are considered very low cost, this can increase quickly to achieve full RTLS functionality.
  • Due to the low-power nature of BLE, tags are small and can last up to three years (depending on usage). However, they are smartphone-readable “out of the box”.
  • Overall, BLE RTLS is ideal when location accuracy is not a major requirement and if your use case involves smartphones as part of you real-time location system functionality. Bluetooth was originally designed to exchange data over short distances and to build personal area networks. It was never designed for positioning but it due to its low cost and ease of implementation, it does have a place in the RTLS landscape.

Where does IoT fit in?

We can’t forget today’s “buzz word” of choice – the Internet of Things or IoT. For any of you who might not know, IoT refers to the inter-networking of physical devices, buildings, and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity which enables these objects to collect and exchange data. Sound familiar? RTLS – regardless of the underlying technology used - is just that but even more, and it’s been doing it for over a decade. RTLS is about battery-powered sensors collecting and sending captured data to machines but it adds an additional and very useful element – location information.

So when you wonder what the difference is between RTLS and IoT, remember that they’re one in the same to a point. It really just comes down to what term you prefer.

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